Showdown Over the UN Staff Payola

While American taxpayers keep tightening their belts, it’s been profligacy as usual for the United Nations, where 4,800 upper-level staff in New York recently received cost-of-living increases that effectively raise their already tax-exempt salaries by almost 3%. This de facto pay hike was the work of the International Civil Service Commission, described on its web site as “an independent expert body ” made up of 15 members appointed by the UN General Assembly “in their personal capacity” to serve four year terms regulating and coordinating the “conditions of service” of UN staff. A big concern of the General Assembly in maintaining this body is that there be “broad geographical representation” — currently including members from countries such as Russia, China, Algeria, Ghana, Jamaica and Bangladesh, as well as from the U.S., Germany and France.


In other words, here’s yet another case in which the U.S. contributes 22% of the money, while the other 192 member states of the UN General Assembly have the overwhelming say in how it gets spent — or, in this instance, in appointing the 15 people who decide how much will be spent on salaries and perks for staff in New York.  Thus are we now seeing this de facto pay rise , in addition to the tax-exemptions, dependency allowances, school grants, travel allowances and in some cases rental subsidies.

But kudos to the U.S. State Department!  (Yes, you read that right). From the U.S. Mission to the UN, there has come an objection to this latest UN move to spend other people’s money padding the pay of its own staff. The new U.S. envoy for UN Management and Reform, Joseph Torsella, has written a letter to the chairman of the International Civil Service Commission, Kingston Rhodes, of Sierra Leone. In his letter, which is posted on the USUN web site, Torsella runs the numbers on the rising emoluments to UN staff in New York , and informs Rhodes that the U.S. government  “strongly objects to this increase.”

Noting that this is a time of “global fiscal austerity,” Torsella points out that the U.S. federal service itself “is currently subject to a pay freeze,” and says that for UN staff in New York, “no increases in either the base salary scale or post adjustment are warranted or appropriate at this time.” Joseph Torsella concludes by requesting that the commission “take appropriate steps” to scrap the UN pay hike in New York.


Way to go Joe! Just this spring, Torsella finally arrived to fill the U.S. Mission’s slot for U.S. envoy for UN Management and Reform, a critical post which the Obama administration had neglected for more than two years — making do with an acting ambassador.  Torsella had virtually no background in dealing with the UN, and I’ve had my doubts about whether he is up to the job — which, properly done, ranks right up there with the 12 labors of Hercules. The jury is still out. In the massive matter of cleaning up the multi-billion dollar global frat house that is today’s UN, this objection to a pay raise in New York is small potatoes. It would be more reassuring had Torsella cited as his rationale not only a world fiscal crunch and a pay freeze by the U.S. government (which has its own problems with profligacy), but also the dismal matter of what the well-paid UN staffers in New York actually produce.

A more resounding voice of reason on the UN is that Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Ros-Lehtinen has been preparing a UN reform bill that would tackle the mighty job of broadly reshaping the warped incentives within the UN system. The congresswoman has been looking for ways to remedy not only the extravagant spending, but the moral bankruptcy that pervades too many UN endeavors. It’s quite possible that Ros-Lehtinen’s efforts helped spark the Obama administration’s newfound interest in at least a smidgin of UN fiscal discipline. The administration, despite its love affair with the UN,  has to do something to show voters it is taking notice of the UN’s vices. With the 2012 election in view, and a lot of American voters already upset about Washington’s cosmic spending spree, this would be a delicate moment for President Obama’s envoys to nod along with UN staffers pocketing beefed up paychecks in New York.


There’s also the question of whether the UN General Assembly’s “independent” International Civil Service Commission, and its chairman, Kingston Rhodes, will trouble themselves to do anything at all about Torsella’s request to ratchet back the staff pay raise. That raise is already in the system; as Torsella himself notes in his letter, it took effect August 1. The current distribution of roles within the UN General Assembly is that the U.S. provides the biggest share of the money, and the rest of gang — whose nationals pack the ranks of those 4,800 UN staffers now enjoying a raise in New York — decide how to spend it. As long as U.S. money keeps flowing in, why should anyone in this food chain care what the U.S. government has to say about it?

All that said, at least there is now a U.S. envoy for UN reform, and he has raised a very valid protest about the UN’s self-serving gravy train. It’s a start. Congratulations to Torsella. It’s worth keeping an eye on this one, to see if he finds a way to follow through.



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